Fish avoidance of ships during acoustic surveys tested with quiet uncrewed surface vessels

Thomas M. Evans, Lars G. Rudstam, Suresh A. Sethi, David M. Warner, S. Dale Hanson, Benjamin Turschak, Steven A. Farha, Andrew R. Barnard, Daniel L. Yule, Mark R. DuFour, Timothy P. O'Brien, Kevin N. McDonnell, James M. Watkins, Scott R. Koproski, Susan E. Wells, Patricia M. Dieter, Erik Kocher, James J. Roberts, Steven A. Senczyszyn, Peter C. Esselman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Acoustic surveys to estimate fish biomass and abundance are a major component of many fisheries monitoring programs. An important bias in acoustic surveys is that fish may avoid the survey vessel. Here, we utilized quiet uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) equipped with 120 kHz split beam echosounders to evaluate fish responses to motorized survey vessels. Two of these USVs were deployed in Lakes Michigan and Huron in summer 2021 and compared against three motorized vessels used in conventional fisheries acoustic surveys. Paired comparisons employed vessel-drone passes that provided the opportunity to observe fish response as vessels approached and then overtook their quiet USV counterparts. Sound originating from the vessels was primarily in the 10–1000 Hz range. Overall received sound pressure levels for ships at the closest pass were 100 dB (re 1 µPa @ 1 m) for one and 133–134 dB for the other two vessels. In contrast, sound originating from the USV was not detectable over ambient noise. We examined acoustic data from the USVs for potential changes in total acoustic backscatter, average target depth, and average in situ target strength as vessels approached. We observed weak evidence of an avoidance response by fish to the vessel with the loudest noise profile and highest survey speed but not for the other two vessels. We also compared acoustic data from 33 2-km transects surveyed by both vessels and the USVs, finding few differences between vessel and USV data for water depths between 5 and 80 m. Results from this work suggest that acoustics estimates of fishes in Lakes Michigan and Huron (primarily alewife, rainbow smelt, and bloater) are largely consistent among the vessels used in these two lakes for standard acoustic surveys and that fish avoidance is minimal in water depths > 5 meters.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106817
JournalFisheries Research
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aquatic Science

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